Our Brand is Crisis

Capitalism is a selfish economic system. There’s no way to dispute this; even its most ardent proponent could do no more than try to pass it off as “enlightened self-interest,” but in the face of the havoc wreaked on Latin American nations through US economic policies, any proclaimed enlightenment is disputable at best and more frequently laughable.

The playing field in Latin America is inherently unequal, more a playground for foreign corporations than an example of a free market with opportunities for struggling countries and communities to benefit from open economic trade. While the theory of the Washington Consensus held that Latin American countries could expect an influx of foreign money and subsequently flourish with novel sources of income, the capital attracted has been largely useless in practice (Cypher 49). Indeed, “in mid-1998, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico all faced serious and growing deficits on their trade accounts” (Cypher 50). On a macrocosmic level, opening Latin American economies has done nothing for the economies themselves, even as foreign companies exploit the world of opportunities opened to them.

On the microcosmic level, the devastating effects of such cavalier attitudes to Latin American communities are made clear in Perkins’ introduction to his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, as he breaks down the profits of crude oil from Ecuador’s depleting rain forests. Of every $100, $75 is pocketed by the oil companies. A majority of the remainder is devoted to foreign debt incurred by Ecuador, and less than 3% of the total proceeds is returned to the devastated communities (Perkins xxiv). These figures alone are enough to dispel the notion that Latin American countries and communities are the primary beneficiaries of opened trade and foreign involvement.

And foreign involvement in Latin American is by no means limited to strategic economic exploitation. Our Brand is Crisis, a documentary concerning the 2002 election of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia, traces the presidential campaign launched by American political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum. The documentary focuses extensively on Jeremy Rosner, chief strategist for ‘Goni’s’ successful run. In his interviews, Rosner comes across as soft-spoken and sympathetic. He expresses regret over the aftermath of the election and Goni’s less than successful tenure as president, but shrugs off any culpability, suggesting that Bolivia simply wasn’t ready for that particular sort of democracy.

A different Rosner emerges in the candid scenes shot during the campaign: with an excited, adrenaline-fueled glint in his eye, he ticks off voters’ primary concerns, analyzes focus groups, and hammers home the necessity of repeating “crisis” as a brand. He freely acknowledges the crisis is present: what remains unsaid is that his goal is to convince Bolivians that Goni is the solution, not come up with a valid solution or way of helping the Bolivian people.

Despite Rosner’s and doubtless GCS’s official lip service to the ideals of democracy and ensuring success in their subject countries, it becomes impossible to forget why GCS is in Bolivia: they are a business, and winning an election is a job for them. Individually, consultants likely have no stake in Bolivia. The presidential election of a small, debt-ridden Latin American country will have little to no impact on their daily lives. But for a fee, they are being asked to influence, manipulate, and sell. Goni is, above all else, a GCS product, and they are selling lip service on economic crisis to the Bolivian people.

The oil companies who snap up right to Ecuadorian rain forests demonstrate one form of negative foreign economic influence, but it is only one of a plethora of problems. As Perkins notes, the Ecuadorian situation is “not the result of a conspiracy; it [is] a process that [has] occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations, a process that [has] involved all the major multinational banks, many corporations, and foreign aid missions from a multitude of countries.” (Perkins 240). To this list, we can add political consulting firms.

Out to make a profit, indifferent to the impact of their involvement in Latin American nations: Our Brand is Crisis merely illustrates another way to exploit Latin America, with well-funded, well-educated foreigners installing a government built on empty promises and outright lies, then letting the chips fall where they may, and bricks be thrown through windows as soldiers fire on demonstrators.

Economic independence and self-determination are far from evident in this picture of a Latin America where “dangerously impoverished” people take a back burner to oil companies and massive amounts of foreign debt (Perkins xxiii). It is hard to imagine that anyone could compare the policies that enabled this to democracy and human rights, yet this is exactly what has been done (Cypher 47, 48). It seems to be just another form of lip service, just another form of deception. Or perhaps John Williamson, like oil executives and GCS consultants, considers foreign economic profit to be of greater import than the living conditions of people who have very little to contribute to a market economy comprised of a white man’s rules.